Scotland’s material footprint is 18 tonnes per person. Experts suggest that we can live sustainable, high quality lives with eight tonnes per person, by moving to a circular economy where materials are reused and recycled as much as possible.

We must change the way we use materials to drastically reduce the impact of our consumption.

Elephant Refills is an Edinburgh-based doorstep refills company, providing household cleaning and body care products. They aim to make it as easy as possible for people to reuse plastic packaging, and deliver by bike. I spoke to its founder, Alison Powell, about how it works and why she decided to set it up.

Alison Powell from Elephant Refills on her bike with a rain jacket and helmet on.

Kim Pratt, Friends of the Earth Scotland: For those of us new to the idea of doorstep refill services, can you explain how Elephant Refills works?

Alison Powell: Elephant Refills works a bit like the old fashioned milk deliveries. Customers leave out their empty bottles and I deliver full refills of household cleaning, hair and body care products to their doorsteps. Each customer has their own set of bottles that they continually reuse. I swap them in and out. It is simple and easy to do, a quick email to me, and customers receive the refills they need on their doorsteps on my delivery days. All my deliveries are free and by bicycle. 

KP: Why did you decide to set up Elephant refills?

AP: I was listening to a radio programme explaining the importance of reusing as opposed to recycling and I suddenly wanted to do something about it. It seemed such an obvious way to reduce single-use plastic waste. As a family we were more and more aware of the impact of our consumption habits on the world and I thought it was important for my children from early on to make the right choices whenever possible and to think in a sustainable way. 

Refill shops are amazing but in reality you have to have the time, the money and be very organised to make that work for a busy household. I wanted to offer a really simple, affordable, convenient way to introduce as many locals as possible to reusing rather than recycling. It was a lightbulb moment when I realised I could do something locally myself. I had just bought my Elephant Bike, so I was well set up to deliver by bicycle and hence the name, Elephant Refills.

KP: Are there any other initiatives you have been inspired by? 

AP: I love anything that reuses materials. My Elephant Bike is a great example of reuse, where a charity has taken bikes from The Royal Mail refurbished them and sold them on. They are wonderful, sturdy, hardwearing bikes and I love the fact that they have been repurposed and were postie bikes in a previous life. 

I have a huge duvet coat (called a Sitting Suit!) and the padding for it is made from 100% recycled plastic bottles. I use it camping and after swimming. I also love my Wakebag backpack.  It’s made from poly paper fibres spun and bound together to create the look of paper, but it’s durable and thick like leather. It’s waterproof too which was a surprise.

I am inspired by anyone who takes something discarded or sustainable and makes it into something practical and reusable. I do it as much as I can with small things in the house and I love to see people making a living from doing it.

KP: Refill models allow your customers to reuse rather than recycle plastic – why is this important?

AP: The future for our world has to be in reusing rather than recycling. We can’t keep producing more and more stuff. It seems common sense that it is better to use something again and again rather than continually producing more. I am a keen recycler but where there is a reusing alternative that has to be the best way for our future.

Big plastic packages of liquids like cleaning products, with pumps to fill up smaller containers.

KP: Chemical pollution often has an invisible impact on our bodies and the environment. How important is it to you to make sure all your cleaning and body care products are non-toxic and eco-friendly?

AP: My original aim was purely to make reusing as easy and affordable as possible for people. At the time, I did not really consider the chemical impact of the products I was going to sell. I just thought it was important that I made reusing easy for people. I naively thought I could source big containers of popular brands and use these for refills.  

Before I set the business up, I was frustrated by how easy it was to just buy a cheap bottle of shampoo from a single-use plastic bottle. The choice and quantity of hair and body care products in plastic bottles drives me crazy in the supermarket. I contacted manufacturers of these same products but it wasn’t possible to set up a refill system with these brands. They just didn’t do it.

Then I visited some refill shops and discovered the wonderful natural, eco-friendly products from Suma and haven’t looked back. I love the thought that these products are totally natural and harmless to the environment. It makes me feel better about using them in my own home and on our bodies daily. No nasties. I now have these lovely products on tap and top up the body washes, shampoos and conditioners and cleaning products whenever necessary. 

KP: What challenges have you faced with the business?

AP: My business model is to try to keep my costs down as much as possible so my prices can remain reasonable and affordable to as many people as possible. I am disappointed that however hard I try, I am unable to make my refills an affordable option for everybody. I really want to change peoples’ consumption habits and make more people think of reusing rather than recycling but the cost of living crisis is making it harder for people to pay that bit more. 

I think something needs to be done to support people to make the right decision for the planet – like a surcharge on plastic packaging. Manufacturers need to be encouraged to come up with refill solutions for the supermarkets to make the changes we need at a large scale.